Ending Violence Against Native Women

One in three Native women will be raped in their lifetime, and three in five will be physically assaulted. Native women are more than twice as likely to be stalked than other women and, even worse, Native women are being murdered at a rate ten times the national average. Due to under-reporting, the actual numbers are almost certainly higher. While data on violence against Native girls is sorely lacking, a recent national survey found violence against Native girls may be disproportionately high as well.

The Center’s Safe Women, Strong Nations project partners with Native women’s organizations and Indian and Alaska Native nations to end violence against Native women and girls.  Our project raises awareness to gain strong federal action to end violence against Native women; provides legal advice to national Native women’s organizations and Indian nations on ways to restore tribal criminal authority; and helps Indian nations increase their capacity to prevent violence and punish offenders on their lands.

Violence against Native women has reached epidemic levels in Indian country and Alaska Native villages. Today, Native women face rates of sexual violence and physical assault that are 2½ times higher than violence against any other group of women in the United States−levels now on a par with estimates of violence against women globally.

Statistics tell only part of the story, failing to account for the devastating impacts this violence has on Indian families, Native communities, and Indian nations themselves. Nevertheless, these statistics make absolutely clear that something more must be done to restore safety to Native women and to help Indian nations address the cycle of violence in Native communities.

RACIAL DISCRIMINATION AND DENIAL OF EQUALITY UNDER THE LAW

It is outrageous that the vast majority of these women never see their abusers or rapists brought to justice. An unworkable, race-based criminal jurisdictional scheme created by the United States has limited the ability of Indian nations to protect Native women from violence and to provide them with meaningful remedies.  For more than 35 years, United States law has stripped Indian nations of all criminal authority over non-Indians. As a result, Indian nations are unable to prosecute non-Indians, who reportedly commit 88% of the violent crimes against Native women on tribal lands. The Census Bureau reports that non-Indians now comprise 76% of the population on tribal lands and 68% of the population in Alaska Native villages. Many Native women have married non-Indians. However, it is unacceptable that a non-Indian who chooses to marry a Native woman, live on her reservation, and commit acts of domestic violence against her, cannot be criminally prosecuted by an Indian nation and more often than not will never be prosecuted by any government.

Federal and state officials having authority to protect Native women and girls are failing to do so at alarming rates. By their own account, between 2005 and 2009, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 67% of the Indian country matters referred to them involving sexual abuse and related matters. Even grimmer, due to the lack of law enforcement, many of these crimes in Native communities are not even investigated.

United States law creates a discriminatory system for administering justice in Native communities−−a system that allows criminals to act with impunity in Indian country, threatens the lives and violates the human rights of Native women and girls daily, and perpetuates an escalating cycle of violence in Native communities.  Women who are subjected to violence should not be treated differently and discriminated against just because they are Native and were assaulted on an Indian reservation or in an Alaska Native village!

VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS

All this highlights the United States’ failure not only under its own law, including the trust responsibility to Indian nations, but also its obligations under international human rights law such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Perhaps the most basic human right recognized under international law is the right to be free of violence.  

Through international advocacy, the Center and its partners not only educate, but also add world pressure on the United States regarding its obligations to end the epidemic of violence against Native women. Toward that end, the Center and its partners have raised awareness about violence against Native women in the United States within the United Nations through its Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (2007), Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism (2008), Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (2011), Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2012), and Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2012).

The Center and its partners also have brought regional international attention to violence against Native women within the Organization of American States (OAS). In 2008, on behalf of numerous nonprofit organizations and tribal governments, the Center and Sacred Circle National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women submitted an amicus brief in support of Jessica Gonzales Lenahan, who filed the first human rights case involving domestic violence in any international body against the United States. The case, which involved the deliberate failure of local police to enforce a domestic violence protection order, did not arise in Indian country. However, it has major implications for Native women who rarely see their abusers brought to justice. In 2011, the Center and its partners, the NCAI Task Force on Violence Against Native Women and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, participated in the first ever thematic hearing on violence against Native women in the United States before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission has since expressed concern about violence against indigenous women in the United States, noting that such situations tend to be accompanied by impunity and urging the United States to address this violence through laws, policies, and programs.

REFORMING FEDERAL LAW TO RESTORE SAFETY TO NATIVE WOMEN

The Center collaborates with Native women’s organizations and Indian nations to change and improve United States law that unjustly restricts Indian nations from adequately investigating, prosecuting, and punishing these crimes against all perpetrators.  The Center supports efforts to strengthen Indian nations in restoring safety to Native women. Our project recognizes that protection of Native women must involve strengthening the ability of Indian nations to effectively police their lands and prosecute and punish criminal offenders.

A center piece of our work with partner organizations has concerned the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which expired in 2011.  The Indian Law Resource Center, the National Congress for American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Women, Clan Star, Inc., and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center have been working both domestically and internationally to restore safety to native women and to protect their most basic human right, the right to be free of violence.  We supported efforts to add provisions to VAWA that would restore tribal criminal  authority to address violence against Native women by non-Natives in Indian country.  In 2012, the Senate passed such a bill by a strong bipartisan vote, however, the House stripped out protections for the most vulnerable, including Native women.  Then, time simply ran out for the 112th Congress, leaving the lives of Native women threatened daily and tribes as the only governments in the United States without authority to protect women from domestic and sexual violence in their communities.

The 113th Congress acted quickly, passing a bipartisan VAWA with tribal provisions intact.  On March 7, 2013, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA 2013) into law, an historic step forward that reflects not only the United States’ commitment to protect Native women from domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protective orders, but also its restoration and reaffirmation of inherent tribal sovereignty to protect their citizens from violence.  Tribal participation in the new jurisdictional provisions is voluntary.  Though tribes can issue and enforce civil protection orders, under VAWA 2013 tribes generally cannot criminally prosecute non-Indian abusers until at least March 7, 2015.   However, under a pilot project, a tribe can start prosecuting non-Indians sooner if the tribe’s criminal justice system fully protects defendants’ rights under federal law; the tribe asks to participate in the pilot project; and the Department of Justice grants the request and sets a start date.


TRAINING NATIVE COMMUNITIES

Restoring tribal criminal authority will only end violence against Native women if Indian nations have the institutional capacity and readiness to exercise such jurisdiction. Many Indian nations are developing the infrastructure for tribal justice systems to provide safety to Native women and girls within their territories, including tribal police departments, codes, and courts. Many have domestic violence codes; training for tribal law enforcement, tribal courts, prosecutors, and probation officers; and various programs for domestic violence offenders.

The Safe Women, Strong Nations project contributes to these efforts by providing Indian nations and Native women’s organizations with assistance to build the capacity of Indian nations to investigate, prosecute, and punish those who commit violence against Native women and restore safety to Native women. This includes assisting Native women’s organizations and Indian nations in better understanding criminal jurisdiction in Indian country and implementing provisions in the Tribal Law and Order Act and VAWA 2013.  The Center also assists and prepares Native women’s organizations and Indian nations in using international advocacy to end violence against Native women.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

For further information about the Safe Women, Strong Nations project or to support our work, please click on our links or contact Jana L. Walker, project director, at jwalker@indianlaw.org or 406/449-2006.

Sheila Harjo

 Silence Perpetuates Violence.  Join us during Domestic Violence Awareness Month in thanking the countless survivors -- like Sheila Harjo -- who have the strength to stand up and say "no more." 

President Obama signs VAWA Reauthorization into Law

Native women's advocates in the United States are praising lawmakers for passage of an inclusive, bipartisan Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act that will afford protection to all women and victims of violence. The bipartisan bill, S. 47, passed by the Senate on February 12, 2013, and now by the House, 286 to 138, includes critical provisions to restore and strengthen tribal authority to protect Native women from violence in Indian country.

To the Indigenous Woman...

Native women are murdered at 10 times the national rate; 1 out 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime, and 3 out of 5 physically assaulted. Even worse, 88% of the perpetrators are non-Indian and cannot be prosecuted by tribal governments. Stand and take action now to restore safety and justice for Native women. Do Something!

Voisine et al. v. United States – Federal Firearm Ban Applies in All Tribal, Federal, or State Domestic Violence Convictions

On June 27, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Voisine et al. v. United States, 579 U.S. __ (2016), affirming that federal law (18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9)) prohibits gun ownership by individuals who have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, regardless of whether the crime was committed with knowing, intentional, or reckless intent.

Senate Holds Hearing on the First Year of Implementation of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015

June 29, 2016 │ By Simon Gertler, 2016 Summer Sidley Fellow

On Tuesday, June 28, 2016, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing to receive testimony from the Department of Justice and Government Accountability Office on implementation of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 one year after its enactment.

The Statute

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The United States Supreme Court released its decision June 23, 2016, in favor of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in a 4-4 tie. The decision in Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians affirms the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which upheld the Mississippi Band of Choctaw tribal courts’ civil jurisdiction. The decision affirms that tribes have inherent civil jurisdiction over non-Indian defendants who sexually assault Native women and children on tribal lands.

United States v. Bryant –Tribal Court Convictions Upheld as Basis for Federal Prosecutions of Repeat Domestic Assault Offenders

On June 13, 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided United States v. Bryant, 579 U.S. __ (2016), holding that uncounseled tribal court convictions that complied with the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 were valid as entered and could be used as predicate offenses in federal prosecutions under 18 U.S.C. § 117(a) without violating the Sixth Amendment. 

Congressional Briefing on the Latest Data Regarding Violence against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men

On June 16th, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and the Indian Law Resource Center are co-sponsoring a Congressional Briefing, to share information about the findings in The Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men: 2010 Findings from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

New Report Confirms Violence Against Native Women is Worse than Previously Thought

The National Institute for Justice has published its latest research report examining the prevalence of intimate partner and sexual violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women and men. This report increases awareness about American Indian victimization to inform policies and practices surrounding implementation of VAWA 2013 special domestic violence jurisdiction over non-Indians. In addition, the report highlights a critical need for further measures to intensify and strengthen the response to violence against American Indian women, and particularly Alaska Native women. On June 16, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Indian Law Resource Center, and National Congress of American Indians will be holding a congressional briefing to inform lawmakers about these and other findings.

Senate Hearing on the Tribal Youth and Community Protection Act and the Tribal Law and Order Reauthorization Act of 2016

On Wednesday, May 18, 2016, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on two bills concerning tribal justice systems, the protection of Native women and children, and public safety in Indian Country:  

International Experts Explore Strategies to End Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls

A capacity crowd converged at the Church Center for the United Nations chapel on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, in New York City for Together We Are Stronger: Indigenous Women’s Movements to End Violence Against American Indian, Alaska Native, and Aboriginal Women. This event was intended to recognize, strengthen, and honor the growing global movement to end the human rights crisis of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

CSW60 Event Focuses on Ending Violence Against Native and Aboriginal Women

The UN Commission on the Status of Women will hold it’s 60th annual session in New York City on March 14-24, 2016. Composed of 45 member countries, the Commission is the global policy-making body for promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women. The Center, along with partners, submitted a joint written statement urging the Commission on the Status of Women to address the epidemic of violence against indigenous women in the United States, especially Alaska Native women in rural villages who have reported rates of domestic violence up to 10 times higher than in the rest of the United States and physical assault rates up to 12 times higher.

Center requests UN action to combat violence against indigenous women

The Indian Law Resource Center, in a joint statement with Americans for Indian Opportunity, the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians, National Congress of American Indians, and the Native American Rights Fund, called on the UN to address the epidemic of violence against indigenous women by following up on the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples Outcome Document.

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